Letters From a Hospital Bed #14: Reflections From a 99 Year Old
Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
February 17, 2022
My dear friends,
I continue to enjoy and anticipate sensing and appreciating the Lord in the night. So often, our sense of night is one of being alone, of longing for sleep in the midst of unwelcome wakefulness, of waking distressed by what our unconscious mind seems to choose for us, leaving us the residue of disturbance and disquiet. At this stage of my life, I find that I enter into sleep without really knowing whether I will wake or on what side of this ‘veil’ I will find myself next. When my beloved Rita died, many of you asked me whether I mourned over her death. It is true that I missed her physical presence and her acerbic wit which kept me straight for decades, but I also sensed her presence because the thin membrane that separated us was just that, thin. And so I began to dream more about Rita and to sense a deep closeness with her that shifted my sense of loss at her death. All I needed was deep sleep in order to dream and I learned that I needed to create space for this important practice.
Since I have come into this new home for what I think of as ‘hospice care’ – inasmuch as I do not expect to ever leave here, in this life – I find that my dreams are lessened by the more frequent nighttime interruptions from my caregivers. It is an irony, that while their focus is to give me physical care at night, I find I need the silence of deep sleep to allow my dream life to be more active. My communion with God is deeper when I dream and my sense of identity in Christ is strengthened through no actions of my own other than to entrust myself to the Father in deep sleep. While asleep, little is required of me, but before sleep, there is much I can do. I have learned not to fill my senses with images and sounds that so imprint themselves on my mind that I am then preoccupied with their processing. Instead, I read the psalms and welcome the descent into sleep. Or perhaps I reflect on a beautiful image such as that iconic hand painted on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel that affirms we are ‘imago dei’ – made in God’s image.
Editor’s Note: In a recent conversation, Dad related greeting his nighttime care givers, whose duties to attend to their patients bodily needs, with an invitation to pray for them in their work. So, before helping Dad in ways upon which he is now dependent, he prayed for them, thanking God for their kindness and grace, blessing their ministry of service. As we spoke together about this, he impressed on me our endless opportunities to be the eyes and words of Christ for all with whom we meet, perhaps especially the kind nurses that attend Dad in the night.
Earlier I wrote of how dreams have changed my life and through it, even events that have shaped others. The early indigenous explorers that discovered New Zealand were responding to their ‘a dreaming’. Augustine and his mother Monica found themselves united through having had the same dream that they were both, together, in the presence of the Lord, a reality that Augustine explored more fully in his Confessions. The silence of Quakers often led to shared dreams that had some profound social impacts, such as the abandonment of slavery, as they recognized through dreams the universal equality of each person, each made uniquely in the image of God. In a time where we think that Zoom is our only way of being ‘together’, perhaps the Lord has other ways for us to enjoy a communion that our busyness has too long resisted. Martin Luther-King energized a generation and more, by declaring so memorably that “I have a dream”. In our hyper-cognitive times, in which the rational brain is amplified, and cognition celebrated, where is the place of our emotions, even the deep depression expressed by Kierkegaard? In our dreams, our emotional life can find greater freedom of expression.
As I have entered this more sleep-filled season of my life, I sense a greater urgency to attend to my dreaming, not only because there is more opportunity – I sleep a lot more – but because I am discovering a richness of life that I was too busy to engage as fully before. I was always blessed by being raised in Spain as the ‘siesta’ was a daily feature and one I have recovered more fully in later life. But dreams are not only for the old – young men will see visions, says the prophet, Joel. I see dreams as a double consciousness that can intensify our identity as Christians, to take our faith beyond the simple affirmation of catechism and entrust our entire unconsciousness into the loving arms of our Heavenly Father. It is hard to argue with God in a dream! Instead, we can know His gentle guidance and prodding of our stubborn wills.
As we prepared this letter, Chris has pressed me to express my deep desire for you with respect to our dreaming. In response to his well-intentioned pestering, I make this my prayer for you.
Dear Father, as my friends that read this letter enter their sleep; as they seek for it, even long for it, may they expect Your presence. May they each invite the Lord to enter their unconsciousness, to impress upon them Your knowing of them, of their uniqueness, and to affirm in them the precious identity that they have in Christ so that, even though their conscious minds might be ever creative in resisting Your Love, their dreams might be the place where they are known most deeply. Amen